Taking it up a level

Karen Collas at Dajarra airstrip

The Alice Springs Centre for Remote Health’s Master of Remote and Indigenous Health helps nurses and other health workers become even more qualified to work and thrive in the bush. Story by Ken Eastwood. Published in Outback Magazine June/July 2017

Health workers in remote areas and Indigenous communities face a range of complex issues. They may be the only medical help around, have limited resources and may be dealing with multifaceted problems.

Since 2011, the Centre for Remote Health at Alice Springs has offered a Master of Remote and Indigenous Health to help prepare nurses and other allied health workers to deal with such complexities.

“Mostly, the great bulk of our students are nurses – either ones who are already working remotely and want to up their skills, but we also have people coming in who want to go and work remotely or practise remotely,” says Professor Tim Carey, director of the centre. “By educating and upskilling health professionals, we think they’re better equipped to stay out in remote communities longer.”

The centre, jointly run by Charles Darwin University and Flinders University, was formed in 1998 and offers graduate certificates and graduate diplomas in remote health practice. “We have students from all over the country and they go all over the country,” Tim says. “For some it’s just about getting their learning at a higher level.”

The Masters degree requires the completion of 12 subjects, and is usually done part-time over about five years. Most of the courses can be done online and some have a two-day or five-day workshop, during which students come to Alice Springs and stay in subsidised student housing. “Primary care is a big part of what we look at, and Indigenous health is a very sharp focus,” Tim says. “Chronic disease is also high on the agenda.” The course also covers public health issues, social determinants of health and advanced nursing skills.

Former graduate of the course, and now one of the lecturers who teaches subjects in remote nursing, chronic disease and management, Karen Collas, has worked in remote communities from the Top End to Queensland, New South Wales, Christmas Island and Central Australia. “The course gives the nurses that foundation knowledge to work out bush. They don’t know what they don’t know,” Karen says. “Most Australians don’t have a lot of experience with remote areas or Indigenous people. There’s a shortage of remote area nurses and yet it’s so important that any remote communities have highly trained and skilled nurses because they’re not going to get a doctor out there fulltime … I hope in the future there will be nurse practitioners in all remote areas.”

Karen says that one of the challenges she has faced in her remote nursing career is developing critical thinking to assess priorities. “Working out, when you’ve got a person in front of you, what are the really important issues and what are the side issues,” she says.

Tim says that the Masters degree involves a large research component. “One of the students at the moment is looking at the extent to which health service managers get involved in quality improvement processes,” he says. They are determining whether remote health care managers are so caught up just delivering health services that they don’t take time to assess their effectiveness. “One of the really big problems out in remote areas and communities is that lots of programs spring up, but they’re rarely evaluated,” he says.

Karen says that the Masters degree would suit “any nurse interested in the challenging and rewarding career of remote nursing. It’s a real privilege to be involved in people’s lives who live in remote areas”.

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